Claude Lanzmann directed this 9 1/2 hour documentary of the Holocaust without using a single frame of archive footage. He interviews survivors, witnesses, and ex-Nazis (whom he had to film secretly since they only agreed to be interviewed by audio). His style of interviewing by asking for the most minute details is effective at adding up these details to give a horrifying portrait of the events of Nazi genocide. He also shows, or rather lets some of his subjects themselves show, that the anti-Semitism that caused 6 million Jews to die in the Holocaust is still alive and well in many people who still live in Germany, Poland, and elsewhere.Written by
Gene Volovich <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Author Amos Oz was so impressed by Shoah (1985) that he wrote five articles about the film. See more »
Srebnik and Podchlebnik were not the only Jewish survivors of the Chelmno Extermination Camp. Today we know at least 9 by name, but not all survived WWII and/or gave testimonies. Lanzmann probably didn't know then. See more »
You don't remember those days?
Not much. I recall more clearly my pre-war mountaineering trips than the entire war period and those days in Warsaw. All, in all, those were bad times. It's a fact we tend to forget, thank God, the bad times more easily than the good. The bad times are repressed.
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An intentionally exhausting, impressive, and essential documentary
I did not love every second of Shoah. I didn't even love every hour. But, I think this was intentional. While yes, I didn't quite give this a perfect score, I can completely understand why people have. It hasn't left my mind in the days since I watched it, and there is nothing else out there like it. I think the reason why we don't see many big documentaries on The Holocaust anymore is because Shoah covered so much, and is such a difficult movie to follow up. Between it and Schindler's List (which is obviously not a documentary, but deals with similar subject matter in a lengthy, gruelling, but admittedly more accessible manner), films about The Holocaust have likely peaked. Then again, I guess Son Of Saul provided a fresh and uniquely haunting depiction of The Holocaust, so maybe my point doesn't entirely stand.
WELL: when it comes to documentaries, it's difficult to imagine another one on The Holocaust being as comprehensive, gut-wrenching, and ambitious as Shoah. Plus the fact that in 1985, there were still more survivors and eyewitness accounts to draw from helped. Despite the lack of archival footage and images, this film is incredibly gruesome and horrific, as many of the stories alone provide an intense and overwhelming amount of detail. Lanzmann was a real tough interviewer throughout, and was completely unafraid to ask difficult question to all his interviewees, whether they were victims, perpetrators, or bystanders. It's uncomfortable, perhaps, but the interrogating style of interviews does get more detail, emotion, and brutal honesty than you would get from more formal interviews. Also perhaps controversial was the filming of ex-Nazis, who agreed to have their voices recorded but not their faces. Lanzmann used hidden cameras for these interviews, and usually that kind of deception would turn me off a documentary, but the argument here that they got off too easily for their crimes and therefore deserve to be exposed is a compelling and rather agreeable one.
It's hard to cover too much about this movie. The experience of watching it is really necessary, because putting something this huge into words is futile, unless you want to go on for pages and pages. But I would like to address two prominent criticisms of this film, and explain why they didn't bother me too much, while briefly going over what I didn't expect to get out of the film but did.
The first criticism is regarding how some interviews aren't translated efficiently, with Lanzmann asking a question (which is subtitled), his translator repeating the question in the interviewee's language, the interviewee answering, and then the translator putting their answer back into French (I think? The language that Lanzmann was speaking), which is then subtitled. The way some viewers complained about this, I was worried every interview was going to be translated this way, but in the end, it was maybe about a quarter? Maybe even less. And even then, it wasn't that bothersome. Tightening up the editing might take half an hour to an hour off the runtime, but the way these interviews are filmed, there would be so many jump cuts, and I think it would just feel weird.
The other criticism is the length in general. That almost nine and a half hours is too long. This is one that I understand, and yes, the length was challenging. The last two to three hours, I'll admit, I found it harder to concentrate. But, I think this was intentional, and even though it leads to a less "entertaining" film, I think it elicits a powerful and unique emotional response. By making the film so long (and occasionally repetitive), Lanzmann is effectively making us used to the horrors he covers in such explicit detail. Many of the interviewees talk about how they were nauseated and disgusted by what was happening in the concentration camps, but after a while, became desensitised and numb to it all. The man who had to remove the bodies from the gas chambers threw up the first time he had to do it, but after some time, he became used to it. The townspeople who lived near concentration camps were horrified at first- by the smells, the sights, and the knowledge of what was happening so close by- but also, eventually, got numb to it. Unless you were there, it's hard to imagine how something so horrifying could become so "normal." But watching a documentary as horrific and detailed and long as Shoah replicates that feeling. Once I realised I was no longer as horrified or saddened by the stories in the final hours as I had been in the first few hours, I finally had some semblance of an understanding why those who lived during that time became apathetic. It's a haunting and sobering thought, realising that in all likelihood, I, my friends, my family- had all of us been in the same situation, it may have been similarly easy to accept such horrors.
Therefore, Shoah, above all else, reads to me as a warning to not become desensitised. To not stop caring when terrible things happen, because not doing anything can let the genuinely evil people get away with so much more. Of course, Shoah achieves far more than just this in its gargantuan runtime, but this was my main take away. I'd highly recommend Shoah, despite its challenging nature and overall length, because if you give it time, it can likely change your outlook on life, and better you as a human being.
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